March 13, 2015

When Cheese Met Sake: The New Franco-Japanese Alliance

Hakkaisan Sparkling Nigori sake with (clockwise from
top left, Bleu d'Auvergne, Brillat Savarin,
 and 18-month old Mimolette cheeses.

The Japanese brewed beverage sake seems to be everywhere now...or is it just me?

Probably a little bit of both. Ever since I started writing about sake I seem to have entered a parallel sake-loving universe. Last night was a good example. The French Cheese Board hosted a sake and fromage pairing at its storefront on West 39th Street near Bryant Park.

For all of you cheese lovers, the space includes a small cheese store with a well-curated selection of French cheeses that rotate on a monthly basis as well as French butter. There's also a handsome kitchen and a gallery. Charles Duque, managing director of the FCB, and Akiko Katayama, a Japanese food writer and culinary diplomat, were our hosts.

In Japan, sake has been steadily declining in popularity since the mid-1970s, and so venturing into foreign markets (the U.S. and France are two top targets) is paramount for the industry. What I didn't know is that the same is true of artisanal cheese in France. The encroachment of cheaper mass-produced and foreign products has put small cheese-makers on a similar quest to open or expand foreign markets.

The cheese store at The Cheese Board.

Necessity may have driven French cheese and sake together, but as sommelier Keita Akaboshi first showed me, sake and cheese can make a beautiful combination. Katayama, our teacher for the night, explained that one reason is that the high umami content of sake matches well with the umami in cultured cheeses. Japanese researchers have discovered 700 to 1,200 different flavor compounds in sake, compared to approximately 600 in wine, and around 400 in whiskey and other spirits.

She also taught us how to read a sake label. Most premium sakes will include what's known as Nihonshu-do, or a sake meter value, which tells you the sweetness or dryness level; the higher the number the dryer the sake. The first of three Hakkaisan Brewery sakes we tried was a sparkling nigori (unfiltered) sake, with a sake meter reading of -25, which is quite sweet. Acidity levels are also given, in this case a 1.7, higher than average to mask or balance its sweetness. Amino acid levels are also noted, with higher number indicating a richer-tasting sake and a lower number a lighter sake.

The sparkling sake was paired with a triple creme brie Brillat Savarin, the idea being that its high acidity would cut through the fat.

Next, a tokubetsu junmai, a smooth, much less sweet bottle, was paired with an 18-month-old Mimolette, the hard, nutty, orange cheese that gets its color from annatto seeds. Our favorite pairing, though, involved a Bleu d'Auvergne and an ashed chevre from P. Jacquin and Son, both of which were paired with a very sweet kijoshu sake. The blue is classified as a PDO, or Protected Designation of Origin, meaning it can only be produced in the region of the Auvergne by specially designated cows who've been raised on equally specific grass.

The high acidity of the kijoshu (made by adding more sake instead of water to the mix to give it a more viscous quality) balanced its extreme sweetness (sake meter value of -30). On the cheeses, it had the effect of taking the edge off their pungency while pulling out their umami. As Celia, my companion in tasting said, "It was our 'aha moment.'"

To learn more about what I've learned about sake, take a look at this article, on the rise of sake's popularity in New York City, and my most recent story, on a Japanese sake yeast expert who is pinning his hopes for the industry on the discovery of new yeasts taken from native flowers.

The French Cheese Board
26 West 39th Street
New York, NY 10018
(212) 302-3390
Web site:

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